The Bacteria That Got Spread Throughout The US By Military Testing

Have you ever heard of serratia marcescens bacteria? Today they are a cause of hospital infections. In the 1960s, they were secretly sprayed across Washington, San Francisco, and New York.

In 1977, a few unsavory facts came to light about the bacteria. Apparently, about 10 years earlier, the Special Operations Division of the Army's Chemical Corps had spread it over at least three cities, apparently just to see if it could be done. They got their answer. And a few other people got much worse.

To be fair to the Chemical Corps, they had every reason to believe that serratia marcescens was harmless. It was regularly used in lab environments to track the spread of infection without doing any harm to people. Only later, when hospitals discovered that it was a major cause of hospital infections, and especially catheter infections, that people realized the damage it could do.

At the same time, it might have been better not to scatter the bacteria in the air and the major transportation systems of major cities. Washington National Airport was one site of the s. marcescens testing. Agents of the Special Operations Division estimated that is spread very well through the airport and on to planes. The bacteria was packed into lightbulbs which were dropped on the New York subway system tracks. That was a great success, as each train kicked up a wind that dispersed the bacteria. Finally, the navy burst balloons filled with s. marcescens above San Francisco. This was the case that led to a lawsuit. Soon after the balloons burst, 11 people at a hospital developed serious infections. By November one man was dead. The lawsuit was dismissed, as there was no way to prove that the bacteria released in the balloons were directly responsible for the infection.

Top Image: CDC Public Health Image Library.

[Via Serratia Army Tests, Secret Weapons Testing]